After sparking a debate
with his list
of the twenty best novels of the twentieth century, Jack Ross has turned his attention to poetry. His list of the twenty greatest long poems of the twentieth century
doesn't deserve to go unanswered: here, then, are my thoroughly subjective picks, in no particular order:Alun Lewis, 'The Jungle'
Forget about that booze hound Dylan Thomas - poet and short story writer Alun Lewis was the greatest Welsh scribbler of the twentieth century. 'The Jungle' is Lewis' last and greatest poem, written just weeks before he blew his brains out beside the latrine of a British army base on the Burmese-Indian border. 'The Jungle' is an elegy for Lewis, and for an entire generation of idealistic young men whose belief that the Second World War could remake the world for the better evaporated during the long years of the conflict. During his deployment in India, a country whose strange landscapes and almost-impenetrable cultures bewildered and thrilled him, Lewis exchanged utopian socialism and Welsh cultural nationalism for a sort of cosmic nihilism:But we dream beside this jungle pool
prefer the instinctive rightness of the poised pied kingfisher
deep diving for a fish
to all the banal rectitude of states,
the dew-bright diamonds on a viper's back
to the vituperations of the just...Paavo Haavikko, The Winter Palace
(1959, translated by Anselm Hollo)
Paavo Haavikko wrote this sequence in the Helsinki of the late 1950s, but it has a timeless, allegorical quality, as the landscape and myths of northern Europe come to stand for experiences common to all human societies. Like a number of Scandinavian writers, Haavikko has the ability to combine the most acute observation with an almost cosmic contemplation. His lines are at once concrete and general:the Emperor is an image,
darkness is descending,
the fallen trees on the slope are like an eagle's nest, the dense dryness of branches,
and the Emperor is alone, and he is clear,
he is in his pleasure palace, cold in winter,
he is the one you see most clearly in the dark...
the Empire is built and destroyed by the blinking of an eye. Ezra Pound, Drafts and Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII
I can't read most of the Cantos
- I find them chaotic and cacophonous, and at the same time oddly fey and bookish, and the intermittent anti-semitic rants don't do much for me, either - but I do like these very late poems, which try to bring the curtain down on Pound's bungled epic. The ugly rhetoric is gone, as haiku-like images float on the page. Pound seems to have found a measure of peace by reflecting back on his long and strange life:I have tried to write Paradise
Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise. TS Eliot, The Four Quartets
I spent a good part of September 2007 huddled beside Bill Direen's Dunedin fireplace, listening to a very crackly recording of the elderly Eliot reading this set of meditations on time, space, and nothingness. I was astonished at the hypnotic quality that the poem's rhythms attain, when they are given voice - who would have thought that such a dour character with such an understated way of reading could generate such incantatory power? Others like Jack prefer The Waste Land
, but for me the Quartets
is the more consistent, mature work. Those long, measured, repetitious lines remind me of The Book of Ecclesiastes
, the only part of the Bible I could read for pleasure. Geoffrey Hill, The Mercian Hymns
This is the poem Pound should have written instead of The Cantos
. Like Pound, Hill travels through time, moving from the ancient Mercia of the semi-legendary King Offa to the austere yet peculiarly surreal England of the 1940s and
Unlike Pound, Hill anchors himself in a place - the Shropshire district that AE Housman made famous with his sentimental poems about 'blue remembered hills'. There is nothing sentimental about the Shropshire of the Mercian Hymns
Hill's sequence has a very English compression, which Pound could have learnt from: There are only thirty of 'hymns', and each runs for no longer than four prose paragraphs. Hill doesn't waste a word. Gunnar Ekelof, Emgion
(1960, translated by WH Auden and Leif Sjoberg)
I posted about Gunnar Ekelof
last year, but I can't remember if I mentioned that the father of modern Swedish poetry was fascinated by the occult, and often held seances. He claimed that this late sequence of poems was dictated to him by a medieval Kurdish prince, and it's hard not to believe him, such is the skill with which another time and place are evoked. Allen Curnow, 'Moro Assasinato'
(1979)All the seas are one sea,
all the blood is one blood...
Ever is always today.
Nuff said, especially since I've already posted in praise
of this astonishing meditation on political fanticism, terror, and the nature of eternity. Anthony Barnett, North North I Said No South Oh I Don't Know: 148 Political Poems
Anthony Barnett is possibly better known as an avant-garde musician than as a poet: this is a pity, because his work has qualities unsual in Anglo-Saxon letters. Barnett has lived in Norway and translated Norwegian poets into English, and it is tempting to believe that his exposure to Scandinavian literature has helped shape his aesthetic. The short poems which make up the North North
sequence are at once brusque and oblique, gnomic and concrete. Perhaps this piece sums up Barnett's intentions:When the
language is stretched
to the last
is the time
when last needs
turn to latest
a few leaves
a last fruit
falls.Isaac Rosenberg, Moses: a Verse Drama
Isaac Rosenberg was one of the few English-language poets who tried to create a new vocabulary and new rhythms to express the terrible experience which was World War One, or the First Great Imperialist War, as sensible people like to call it. Rosenberg is remembered today for his short poems about life in the trenches, not his unfinished attempt at a verse-play, but Moses
also registers the shock of war on a sensitive and intelligent young man:I am rough now, and new, and will have no tailor.
As a mountainside
Wakes aware of its other side
When from a cave a leopard comes...Kendrick Smithyman, 'An Ordinary Day Beyond Kaitaia'
We can't leave old Smithy off our list, can we? Many Kiwis think that there's nothing beyond Kaitaia except Cape Reinga, but the 'sly old fox of New Zealand verse' proves them wrong in this poem:...inconstant air implicates farmlands
in a conspiracy of nation, utility,
populist myth. You must change
your life, Rilke’s archaic Apollo urged.
They have done so. They have put by.
Between a sea and an ocean
the farmlands lie low
without a hill to comfort them...
Slavic Polynesian faces,
all the men wearing dark
suits. Perhaps they are going
to a wedding beyond
the dairy factory...
It is nice to see 'An Ordinary Day' being discussed in Senka Bozik-Vrbancic's new book Tarara: the cutural politics of Maori and Croat identity in New Zealand. Eugene Guillevic, Carnac
(1961, translated by Teo Savory)
Guillevic was a stolid Breton who spent weeks on end staring at the sea off the northern coast of his native land. The result was this sequence of quiet, often beautiful poems:A whole system of arithmetic
died in your waves.Max Jacob, The Dice Cup
(1917, translated by John Ashbery)
At the time he was writing many of the pieces in The Dice Cup
, Max Jacob was sharing a tiny apartment with Picasso. The apartment had only a single bed, so the two struggling artists worked out a routine: Picasso painted while Jacob slept, then Jacob wrote while Picasso slept. Picasso created a Cubist style of painting by breaking through the traditional laws of composition and coming at his subjects from strange angles; Jacob did something very similar in the strange prose poems that fill this book:There are upon the night three mushrooms that are the moon. As brusquely as the cuckoo sings from a clock, they rearrange themselves at midnight each month. There are in the garden rare flowers that are small sleeping men, one-hundred of them. They are reflections from a mirror. There is in my dark room a luminous censer that swings, then two... phosphorescent aerostats. They are reflections from a mirror. There is in my head a bumblebee speaking.Iain Sinclair, Lud Heat
After finding himself at a loose end in London in the early '70s, Iain Sinclair scored a job mowing the lawns in the grounds of the mysterious churches that Nicholas Hawksmoor built in the aftermath of the plague and fire that struck the city in the seventeenth century. Alternating between verse and prose, Lud Heat
is at once a journal of Sinclair's experiences on the job, a visionary exploration of the history of the Hawksmoor churches, and a series of hallucinations:What cosmic order does he affront, or do we affront, by raking over these old wound paths in this Year of the Tiger? Breaking the code of the churches gives us twin fears: fire and inundation. These holy places are tombs of the sacred crocodile...they demand sacrificial flame. Consume, consummate: God's place. Possession of the hollow body by demonic, multi-tongued fires.
St Anne was gutted by fire on the morning of Good Friday, April 6, 1850...Martin Johnston, 'The Blood Aquarium'
Martin Johnston, who died of alcoholism at the age of only forty-two in 1990, was the Jorge Luis Borges of Australian literature, an extraordinarily erudite and slightly otherwordly intellectual who made literary games into exciting and profound things. 'The Blood Aquarium' is a guided tour of the history of Western culture, from a man aware of both the riches and limitations of that culture.Selima Hill, The Accumulation of Small Acts of Kindness
'Accumulation' is a word that suits Hill, who builds her poems up out of short, tight sentences and simple but resonant images. This book-length poem is presented as a series of entries in the diary of a teenage girl who has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital, and it frequently makes for unnerving reading:I had to cross the day room on my hands,
a silent rabbit foraging for fruit...
I think I have swallowed a rabbit.
It keeps wriggling. Peter Reading, C
Peter Reading became a hero for fifteen minutes in the 1980s when he lost his factory job for refusing to swap his 'civilian' clothes for a company uniform. Reading's poems can be read as defiant protests against the seedy, slowly decaying Britain that decades of Thatcherism and (more recently) Blarisim have created. Like BS Johnson, another avant-garde British writer with strongly left-wing views, Reading is detrermined to bring social realism and literary experiment together. His poems are unconventional, but they are full of the minutae of fin de sciele Britain. Despite the odd shapes it often forms on the page, Reading's writing is always subtly formal: C
, which tells the story of writer slowly dying of cancer, is made up of one hundred units of one hundred words each. Roberto Sanesi, Information Report
(1973, translated by William Alexander)
Sanesi revolted against the 'hermetic' school which dominated Italian poetry after World War Two. Against the hermeticists' insistence that poetry should be 'purified' of all references to 'reality', Sanesi raised the banner of a 'dialectical' poetics which would engage relentlessly with the world in all its messiness. Information Report
ranges over Italian history, and includes some eerie evocations of Mussolini's rule and the anti-fascist resistance which eventually prevailed against Il Duce, but Sanesi is also able to find poetry in something as simple as the movement of a bird, or the shadow of a curtain in an empty bedroom.
WH Auden, Spain
You know a poem must be good when you can study it for months, write a PhD chapter
about it, and perform it live
with a last-minute put-together boogie band, and yet still not despise it. Burns Singer, 'Sonnets for a Dying Man'
Burns Singer is not so much undervalued as unknown. This is a shame, because his poems fuse the scientific outlook and terminology he learned as a marine biologist with that pearly, pastoral beauty familiar in traditional English verse. Singer died young, and this sequence occurs near the end of the only collection of poems he published in his lifetime. It is hard not to read Singer's sonnets as a valediction:The life I die moves through the death I live...
I do not want to go. I will not give
The death I live in to the life I die;
Or trust it will reveal what I deny:
And will not die although I cannot live... Ken Bolton, Untimely Meditations
I know what some of you will be thinking: 'fifty pages of a drunken Aussie writing whatever comes into his head - is this some kind of joke?' The answer is yes, this poem is, like all of Bolton's work, a sort of extended joke, and it's often rather funny:In the mid-70s
I became aware
of an irritating irregular din,
becoming quite insistent
- things beginning with 'I'
It was Les Murray.
Les told us
as if poems were a sandwich...Tua Forsstrom, The Snow Leopard
(1994, translated by David McDuff)
A book-length poem by a Swedish-Finnish writer? The word 'snow' in the title? How can we go wrong?